Chefs and owners make adjustments in a rough economy

A beautiful and vaguely familiar face passed my table at the Blue Grotto (see review) one night recently. I fumbled, trying to remember who she was. “It’s Thelma Oliver,” she said, grabbing my hand. I was so happy to see her that I practically jumped out of my chair. I hadn’t seen Thelma in more than a year, since I interviewed her about her increasing frustration with the powers that be in Kansas City.

A year ago, Oliver was furious that downtown construction — preparations for the Power & Light District — had seriously hurt her business at the Mango Room. That soul-food and Caribbean restaurant had, amazingly, succeeded for two years in a previously doomed location at 1111 Main. Until her stretch of Main was torn up.

Oliver sent e-mails to Mayor Mark Funkhouser and City Manager Wayne Cauthen with the subject line “I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore.” City Hall replied with some vague promises, but the damage had been done. The months that customers couldn’t easily get to her restaurant (or find a parking spot) had cost Oliver dearly. Nine months later, Oliver and her partner, chef Ian Hockenberg, quietly closed the downtown Mango Room for good.

“We’re still looking around,” Oliver told me at the Blue Grotto, where she’s now a manager. She clearly loves the place and seems in no hurry to do anything else. After all, she said, “It’s a hard time to be opening restaurants.”

Or running them. Chef-owner Rob Dalzell has decided to take his upscale 1924 Main, which formerly served only prix fixe dinners, in a whole new direction. “I want it to be a neighborhood restaurant serving the kind of reasonably priced dinners that chefs might cook at home,” he told me last week. The success of his lower-cost Sunday- and Monday-night meals convinced him that it was a new day for restaurants.

“People are more interested in getting quality and value than ever before. We’ve just introduced a new menu with dishes like chicken and fried green tomatoes for $12, and a list of cold dishes for under $9. We’re not doing the $35 prix fixe dinners anymore.”

Dalzell doesn’t want a quiet, stuffy fancy restaurant. “I want to hear noise. I want to hear customers talking across the table from each other. And eating!”

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